The grades are just in for the world's biggest math and science exam, and they don't look good for United States students or the schools that educate them.
American 12th-graders scored well below the world average in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), in results announced Feb. 24. And no country ranked lower than the US in student performance in advanced mathematics and physics.
These results confirmed a trend in earlier TIMSS scores: US fourth- graders ranked above international averages in math, and were second only to South Korea in science; but eighth-grade scores dropped below international norms. Yesterday's rankings show that high school seniors have fallen even further behind.
Some educators are calling the results a national disaster. The scores are sure to be Exhibit A in a new round of proposals to improve schools.
"This is unacceptable, and it absolutely confirms what the president and I have been saying, that academic standards must be raised dramatically across America," says US Secretary of Education Richard Riley, responding to the latest TIMSS results.
Chester Finn, an education expert with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says, "I can't avoid the conclusion that the longer American kids stay in school, the worse they do in math and science. US students are not even studying that which they are being tested on."
The only bright note in the latest TIMSS findings is that the US was one of three countries, along with South Africa and Hungary, that didn't have a significant gender gap in general math knowledge - and one of the smallest in general science knowledge. Most TIMSS nations have tried to make math and science more accessible to females.
US students rarely score well on international tests, but in the past, there have been plausible reasons why. For example, other nations used to educate only their best students in the highest grades, while US high schools took anyone. Such international comparisons unfairly ranked all US students against everyone else's elites.
But that is no longer the case. All 21 countries participating in this last phase of the TIMSS study now enroll more than 90 percent of secondary-school age children. "Some think that America is an egalitarian place and that the rest of the world is elitist. But the world is changing," says Pat Forgione, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which analyzed and published TIMSS.
Asian countries in earlier TIMSS studies did not participate in this latest version because they focus testing efforts on earlier grades to determine where improvements can be made, according to Mr. Forgione.
There are some startling international comparisons in this survey. For example, 28 percent of US 12th-graders work more than five hours a day at a paid job, while only 9 percent of students in other countries work as many hours. In addition, US students report more theft of property and personal threats at school. But none of these factors explain differences in performance with higher-scoring countries, analysts say.
"We were looking for something that high performers were doing that we weren't - but we just didn't find it," says Forgione. "Everyone is watching lots of TV. Less work at part-time jobs would probably be a good thing, but some high-performing countries have lots of kids working and some low-performers have virtually none."
The key to improving math and science performance is what goes on in the classroom, experts say. In the US, local communities decide what is taught in the schools. Most high schools require only three years of math and two years of science, and many students stop taking math and science after the 10th or 11th grade.
"We're at a disadvantage compared with others, such as France, that have a centralized system and can make a concerted effort to improve education fast. Even when we decide to do something, it takes years of cajoling to get change," says Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of the Sciences.
In addition, some 28 percent of high school math teachers and 18 percent of high school science teachers neither majored nor minored in these subjects. In physics, almost half of American students are taught by teachers without a major or minor in the field, according to the Department of Education.
"I urge our students to take four years of challenging curriculum, including physics and calculus, by graduation. That's a huge change, but it's needed to be internationally competitive," says Education Secretary Riley. President Clinton has requested $60 million to improve math training for primary and middle-school teachers.
Educators say there is also a need to improve science and math curriculum dramatically. "The United States has the leading university and college science departments in the world," says Mr. Alberts, "but they have not played any role in K-12 science education. Science textbooks should be written by the best scientists working with the best teachers, not by committees in publishing houses that are good at marketing books."